This year, my Christmas present came from Afghanistan. When I opened the box, I was greeted by several jewel-colored wraps. The colors were rich and the patterns intricate. One thought leaped into my mind; my husband touched these. I grabbed them, put them to my face and breathed in one very big breath hoping they smelled like him.
They didn't. They smelled of fire.
I coughed repeatedly for well over a minute, as does my husband when my daughters and I are able to Skype with him. It's not a cold that sets off his coughing fits. It's not the sand. It's the burn pits that my country is subjecting my soldier too. So the joy I feel from seeing my husband on my laptop and the warmth I feel when I bundle up in my Christmas present is stained by the knowledge that my husband is breathing in toxic chemicals 24-four hours a day for 365 days and the damage is likely to be permanent.
Nearly 3 million of our most treasured citizens including warriors, civilians and first responders have breathed in poison since 2001. We have known it was poison for 20 years when 250,000 Desert Storm warriors began showing signs of a mysterious illness. The symptoms – headaches, diarrhea, arthritis, indigestion, memory loss - were varied and traditionally would not have been connected that it Congress didn't order research into this until 1998. Even in the face of overwhelming research, the Veterans Affairs Administration didn't conclude that, indeed, our troops had been poisoned, at least in part, by America openly burning waste on base until 2008.
Further proof that even a relatively short period of exposure to toxic smoke is deadly was thrust upon us on September 11, 2001.
Twenty-two years later, we know the "syndrome" is a real medical condition, we know the causes and we know we contributed to those causes. And, still, we openly burn waste in Afghanistan as we did in Iraq while we continue to ignore our collective culpability. Even a wartime Congress abdicates their responsibility to our troops. A bill put forth by former Congressman Larry Kissell (D-NC8) that would extend the “presumptive illness” dates of service to include veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan VA only garnered seven co-sponsored and died in the 112th Congress.
Of course, there are more dirty little secrets. America contracted a huge portion of this war to private companies who sent thousands to Iraq and Afghanistan. There are no VA benefits for them. There is only legal action under the War Hazards Act. They will be forced to sue the nation they served. Veterans, of course, can't sue. They are reduced to applying, protesting and begging. Congress could obviously fix this on behalf of all Americans for our warriors. With more Iraq and Afghanistan veterans serving in the 113th Congress than ever; we can hope. But with fewer veterans in Congress than ever before; it's doubtful.
Ironically, most communities prohibit individuals from burning waste on their property because it's dangerous to human health and the Environmental Protection Agency governs municipal waste burning so Americans don't breath in toxic dioxins, which would kill us. It's a shame - a national shame - that the Department of Defense didn't call the EPA and ask them how to safely burn waste before September 11, 2001.
For now, the truth is hidden in Christmas boxes, leaked memo's, failed legislation and in Skype's interrupted by lungs desperately trying to reject poisonous air.